Port to port and fort to fort
The twin delights of Landguard at Felixstowe and Harwich Redoute
We didn’t mean to go to sea, or rather, cross the great Orwell and end up in Harwich. But you know how it is – there you are, enjoying a real breath of fresh air in the company of stunning estuary views, sitting on the café terrace at Felixstowe’s Landguard Point where an early Sunday morning cuppa comes with a generous helping of ships. Then all of a sudden, a spontaneous something or other puts a cat among the seagulls.
Landguard’s impressive stronghold always makes an inspiring ‘fort for the day’, with something for everyone to explore. In summer, waves of wildflower blues colour the banks by the moated entrance and linnets sing out from the bramble bushes by the practice gun emplacements. If you’re up with the lark, before opening time, it’s an ideal opportunity to wander the nature reserve boardwalks, binoculars in hand, then settle down to watch the world of yachts and colourful cargo freighters go by, or try to identify the landmarks in the
Essex territory beyond.
“Isn’t there another fort, over there somewhere?” comes the question, as binoculars scan the Harwich horizon. “Can’t see where,” comes the reply, “but
I bet this one might be hard to spot from across the water too.” Then, right on cue, an unidentified yellow blob bobs into view, coming ever closer, making a b-line for the beach. By the shingle shoreline, just metres from the café table and coffee cups, the bright alien craft stops on the lapping waves. It lowers a ramp and visitors from the ‘other’ side step out on to the sand, some even wheeling bicycles. “Any more for Harwich?” calls one of the crew enticingly. And with that, all plans for the day are blown asunder. Moments later, aboard the blonde bombshell aka the Harwich Harbour Foot Ferry, sights are set not just on the bold and blocky shapes of low-lying Landguard Fort as it sinks almost sulkily into the shingle banks behind, but ahead towards St Nicholas’ sharp Victorian spire, the proud pair of lighthouses and to an unexpected foray into the Essex unknown.
A SEAFARING TOWN
Alight at Harwich’s Ha’penny Pier and there’s cargo ships, cruise liners and seafaring history as far as the eye, or the binoculars, can see. With Harwich harbour providing the best safe haven for large ships between the Thames and the Humber, and the Orwell and Stour offering optimum in-routes for both traders and invaders, it’s no wonder Henry VIII thought a fort at Langer (Landguard) Point to protect the navigable channel a strategic necessity. On the pier, originally constructed to welcome great Victorian paddle-steamers and the coast’s first holidaymakers, it’s worth popping in to the old ticket office and waiting room, now a free museum commemorating Harwich’s association with the Mayflower, before taking the seafront route through town, past Navy Yard Wharf, where Henry and his ancestors built their ‘Men of War’ and Elizabethans like Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher set sail for new worlds.
It’s hard to resist a quick climb up the High Lighthouse, home to a wireless museum and wonderful views. Down on the seafront green, the Low Lighthouse harbours the maritime museum, but from 1818 to 1863 the unusual Victorian pair were ‘matched up’ by ship’s skippers to navigate the sandbanks. Set between them both, a unique wooden treadmill crane used in the shipyards from 1667 until 1927, takes pride of place on the greensward, but where’s the fort?
Over in Harwich, what you’re really looking for is a ‘Redoubt’. Landguard’s got a similar sort of
circular Napoleonic set-up, but it’s hiding inside the bastioned walls of a pentagon. The south coast’s Eastbourne and Dymchurch have one, and there’s a certain resemblance between these defensive 360° cover fortifications and ‘Pitt’s Pork Pies’, the 104 Martello towers built at the start of the 19th century when Britain was at war with France.
‘Landguard Fort is one massive maze of barrack rooms and batteries’
Follow the signs to an unsuspecting spot with prime views over the harbour entrance. Surrounded by a deep moat, Harwich’s fort sits firmly embedded into a hilltop, brought back from the brink by an entirely volunteer workforce. The first floor delivers views across the waters and down into the great 60m diameter circle where 18 ‘casemates’ once housed 300 soldiers, their stores and ammunition. Below, the parade ground has been put to grass, smartly clipped and well turned-out, like the grey buildings and neatly painted railings surrounding it, but of the ten 24-pounder cannon which once graced the battlements, just the Gilbert Gun sits proudly back in place. “We think there are a couple more in the moat,” shares a kindly gentleman, “but we’ve been at it nearly 50 years and there’s still so much more to do.” He refers to the old barrack rooms that they’d like to fill with displays, but there’s already plenty to discover from maritime bygones to military memorabilia, not to mention the remarkable restoration story of a Napoleonic fort abandoned in the 1920s, ‘rediscovered’ and taken on by the Harwich Society in 1969 in reputedly the largest volunteer-led restoration project of an ancient monument.
Later, back on the Suffolk side, in comparison with Harwich’s bite-size Redoubt, Landguard Fort is one massive maze of barrack rooms and gun batteries, magazine tunnels and submarine mining history. Stairways and passages leading in every direction, through cavernous gunpowder stores and up to the King’s Bastion with its replica 38 ton muzzle loaded gun. When the Harwich fort was abandoned, Felixstowe continued to adapt and serve, throughout World War II and into the Cold War period. From two blockhouses in Henry VIII’s day to a formidable fort where 17th century predecessors of the Royal Marines defeated the Dutch under Capt Darrell in the last opposed invasion of England, Landguard Fort has always built on its history. Packed with fascinating explanations and exhibits, it’s a fort for a day out, but somehow only half the story.
LEFT: Landguard FortRIGHT: Harwich Redoubt
Harwich Harbour Ferry makes its way across the estuary
Landguard Fort’s tunnels bristle with atmosphere